Defence force won't be fighting bushfires

The bushfires royal commission has examined the ADF's role in responding to natural disasters.
The bushfires royal commission has examined the ADF's role in responding to natural disasters.

Australian Defence Force personnel will not be on the ground fighting bushfires.

The ADF has its own trained firefighters, but its vice chief has dismissed the idea of soldiers being on the ground fighting bushfires.

"We do not train as bushfire fighters," Vice Admiral David Johnston told the bushfires royal commission on Wednesday.

He said Defence personnel would not be able to undertake the training done by volunteer or professional fire services nor would they be able to gain the necessary experience on a fireground given the nature of military service.

"If I'm a sergeant or a warrant officer in an army unit who are responsible for the supervision of their people, the ability for us to build that experience in firefighting into those individuals is at best highly dubious and variable," he said.

Vice Adml Johnston said Defence had to ensure its personnel were appropriately trained and equipped for the roles they were employed in, noting the equipment they used was increasingly complex and technical.

"The capacity of the ADF to be able to pick up ancillary skills that are not at our core role is a very complicated issue for us."

The ADF has firefighters on military airfields and on board ships in case of fires.

"Our firefighting skills are very specific to the requirements that we have to generate military capability," Vice Adml Johnston said.

Defence was involved in the bushfire response from early September until late March.

Operation Bushfire Assist marked the largest mobilisation of the ADF for domestic disaster relief in Australia's history, involving about 8000 personnel, including more than 2500 reservists.

Vice Adml Johnston said the ADF was working on ways to improve its ability to respond to disasters in the future, including seeking to have greater flexibility in the call-out of reservists.

Defence also provided temporary accommodation for 530 fire evacuees on its bases and 3670 emergency service workers, preparing 77,000 meals for those groups, firefighters and some relief centres.

Vice Adml Johnston said Defence was quite adept at support emergency services in its bases, but bringing families and their pets was a different experience.

"These were experiences that we had over last summer that are not common to us, that we recognise we can improve on, that we can be better prepared for in the following season."

The federal government allocated $87.9 million to the ADF to cover net additional costs during Operation Bushfire Assist.

Vice Adml Johnston said close to $66 million had been spent, the bulk to cover reservists' salaries.

The head of the national disaster management organisation told the royal commission there should be a national bushfire intelligence capability, providing a common picture of where fires were burning, fuel loads, areas of risk and forecasts.

"It is unfortunate that we don't in Australia have nationally consistent hazard and particularly bushfire information systems," Emergency Management Australia director-general Robert Cameron said.

"Each of the states and territories, quite rightly for a whole range of legacy reasons and abilities to invest, and likewise the Commonwealth is dealing with legacy systems and stand-alone systems."

Mr Cameron said something as simple as a national fire map involved manually collating jurisdictional information.

Australian Associated Press